New Testament Reflections: Phil 1:19-26 (part 3)
Philippians 1:19-26 (part 3)
NASB: 19 For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.
Literal: 19 For I know that this for me will result into salvation, through your petition and the supply from the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 corresponding to my deep desire and hope that I will be made ashamed in nothing, but in every boldness, now as always, Christ will be enlarged/magnified in my body, whether through life or death. 21 For to me, to live is [nothing other than] Christ, and to die is [nothing less than] gain. 22 Now, if [I continue] to live in the flesh, this [will mean] fruit of labor for me. And what I shall prefer I do not know. 23 Now, I am torn out of the two, having the longing to depart and to be with Christ, for that is better by far; 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary because of you. 25 And convinced of this I know that I will remain and will continue with all of you with a view to your progress and joy in the faith 26 in order that your ground of boasting may overflow in Christ Jesus, by me, through my coming to you again.
1:21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. We finally reach the apex of Paul’s thought, and one that will be fleshed out in chapter 2. This oft-cited phrase, reduced to triteness in our Westernized evangelical world, is as often robbed of its force as it is of its context. We cite the phrase for the value of the first half of it—“to live is Christ.” What we fail to notice is that the first half is meaningful only by virtue of its relationship to the second half—“to die is gain.” Indeed, the second half animates the first half; and only when one can enthusiastically embrace and unequivocally express the sentiment of the second half is the first half true of him. Too often our attitude about the prospect of meeting Christ face to face takes on a carefully qualified ambivalence. It’s something we want to do—someday; but we’re in no hurry. After all, we have so much to accomplish and experience in this life. We want to see our kids grow up first, and then we want to see them accomplish certain tasks. We want to see this or that part of the world first. We want to finish our degree program. We want to experience what it’s like to be a grandparent. We want to achieve this or that accomplishment in our job, in our hobby, in our family. Or, if we want to cast it in more spiritual terms, we have certain goals we want to achieve in our ministry before we finally pack it in; we want to be useful in the growth of our church; we want to be instrumental in the salvation of certain people under our sphere of influence.
1:22-24 The real question here is not over whether there is merit in such spiritual pursuits—there is—but rather over our mindset in accomplishing them; indeed, over our sense of self-significance in that accomplishment! For Paul, none of those things took priority over his desire to depart and be with Christ, which Paul insists is far better than sticking around to see any of these things accomplished. Paul’s head, as it were, was already on the chopping block. His singular fear, as we have already seen, was that he might be “made ashamed” at the way he conducted himself through his demise, and that Christ might not be “enlarged” in him through it. He had no personal ambitions, no personal goals, no 40-day pursuit of “purpose” or “significance” outside of dying a death worthy of the gospel and of Christ. His mindset was such that that he saw himself as a mere vessel to be used up and disposed of at Christ’s good pleasure. How trivial our ambitions seem in comparison. Nothing in this life, as he saw it, was dependent upon his continued presence here. Indeed, in the hands of a sovereign God, his death might very well be more meaningful for the sake of the gospel than his continued life.
Make no mistake; Paul recognized that were he to continue in this life, there would no doubt be even more fruitful labor to his credit as he continued his ministry in the gospel. But the scenario that was better by far was his departure to be with Christ. Indeed, he was hard-pressed from both directions (“torn between the two,” NIV) over these two prospects; so much so that he anguished over them: I do not know which to choose. Both the NASB and the NIV translate the word haireomai as “choose.” But that rendering raises a rather baffling exegetical question: Did Paul really have a choice in the matter of his death? He gives us no indication that God has held out these two options and asked his opinion. Indeed, as we have already seen, his fate seems to be unknown to him (see comments on 1:19); in spite of some rather confident statements he makes that he expects to be vindicated and released from prison (see, e.g., 1:25), the prospect of imminent death continues to loom throughout his letter (see, e.g., 2:17, 23, and 3:10-11).
The situation clears up a bit once we realize that haireomai can also be translated as “prefer.” On this understanding, Paul does not know which to scenario to “prefer.” Here is the utter selflessness of Paul. He has a longing to depart and to be with Christ, which, if he were acting in his own best interest, would clearly be his preference. But, if he were to act altruistically in behalf of the Philippians (and presumably his other churches), he would then prefer to remain on in the flesh since that would be more necessary for their sake—for their growth and advancement, not his own.
1:25 As much as Paul prefers to “depart” this world and “to be with Christ” (a statement, by the way, that removes any doubt that Paul would firmly repudiate the idea of “soul sleep”; a teaching absolutely foreign to the biblical writers, in spite of its proponents misreading of certain verses), he knows it is better for the church if he remains on in the flesh: And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith. This, more than anything else, is the difference between Paul and most of the rest of us. If we are honest with ourselves, the spiritual reasons we have for remaining on in the flesh—to wit, to witness the accomplishment of certain spiritual goals of the church—is, at best, mostly true. There’s almost always a tinge of self interest involved. After all, who doesn’t want to witness the success of something he has initiated; and which of us doesn’t mind receiving the accolades for it? For Paul, those things are entirely moot, and he will demonstrate this in later chapters as well. It is solely for the benefit of the church that Paul acts and thinks, not for himself.
1:26 What is the outcome of Paul’s remaining on in the flesh? Simply this: So that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. The way this is rendered by the NASB is a bit awkward, which is no fault of the translators—the Greek text is itself equally awkward. “Proud confidence” is surely not something Paul wants the Philippians to place in him. The literal rendition of this verse is, “in order that your ground of boasting may overflow in Christ Jesus in me through my coming to you again.” So convoluted is this thought that the NIV has simply opted not to translate kauchema (literally “boasting” or “ground of boasting”) at all in its “so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me”! It is probably best to associate the “ground of boasting” with their confidence in Christ working in Paul (a rendition that easily accounts for the dual use of en) through this particular situation (rather than a “proud confidence in Paul,” as the NASB has it). Paul envisions the outcome of his potential release and his coming again to the Philippians as an occasion to build the Philippians’ confidence in Christ’s sovereign hand, even to the point of overflow.